Women’s History Month Call to Action: Let’s Improve Healthcare Experiences for Women

baby sleeping with tiara on head

Written By: Millicent Cavanaugh | Co-Executive Director

Relaxing one evening with some beauty care, I came across the dents in my scalp. I hadn’t thought of them in many years, but at that moment I recalled how, as a precocious child, I’d bragged about my forceps dents, feeling slightly proud of this thing that made me unique. None of the other kids, nor my siblings, ever mentioned their dents, confirming my sense of uniqueness.

As an informed adult female, cogitation of my forceps dents no longer invokes a reaction of amusement or uniqueness. Rather, it brings realization about the probable circumstances surrounding my mother’s birthing experience, of the possibilities of pregnancy violence, pain, and mistreatment which she likely endured, as well as the discriminatory attitudes and practices of a medical system founded on antiquated and misogynistic ideas about women and birth, which she had to deal with.

Feeling these dents in my skull also prompts me to reflect on my own experiences, as a brown woman, of dismissive and incompetent assertions by doctors, nurses, researchers, and health insurance companies — experiences that are not unusual for BIPOC people trying to get equitable and responsible healthcare access in the U.S.:

  • The white male E.R. doctor who dismissed me, a brown girl-child, and my brown parents, from the examining room after 5 minutes, never looking not directly at us during that brief time, yet conveying by tone and body posture that we were not worth his time or attention; 
  • The black male doctor who prescribed a new ‘possible’ ailment each visit, and recommended unnecessary biopsies and tests to ensure I’d return on a weekly basis because I had an expensive, 100%-coverage health insurance plan (I dropped him when one week he told me I was diabetic and gave me insulin pills, and the following week he said I wasn’t diabetic and that he ‘hoped I hadn’t taken any of those pills’);
  • The 3 doctors, male and female, black and white, who insisted a hysterectomy was the only option for ovarian cysts;
  • The (after a lengthy search) 4th black, female, surgeon whom I allowed to do the cyst removal because she didn’t try to foist hysterectomy on me, but who cut more than the cysts, and being part of the ‘system’, would not openly admit it, just approached me with a nervous look and air of shame, asking me repeatedly after I awoke from surgery, ‘is everything ok?’ It wasn’t until I was discharged that I subsequently discovered the irreparable damage she’d done – no one on the surgical team, nor the nurses, nor the administrators, ever acknowledged it.

My experiences are not atypical:

Many deliveries involve decisions on the fly, particularly to ensure the safety of you and your newborn. Research showed that a longer, more painful, and complicated recovery process occurred when births didn’t go as planned and the healthcare provider uses forceps to get the baby out. This can result in lifelong implications for the mother, specifically with poor healing or ongoing pain, sexual dysfunction, incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, or infections.

“Potential risks to the infant include facial injuries and weakness, skull fractures, and bleeding,” Dr. Gaither explains. Dr. Tran adds that since forceps grasp the side of the head, around the baby’s ears, it can cause damage, adding that forceps can break the baby’s clavicle, injure their facial nerves, and increase the risk of infection. – By Alexandra Frost;  Published on December 15, 2021, Fact checked by Aaron Johnson

Uche Blackstock is the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity. In her new book, Legacy: A Black Physician Reckons With Racism In Medicine, she explores systemic inequity in health care, tracing its origins back to the beginnings of Western medicine and to her own experiences as a medical student and doctor. – 

Heard on Fresh Air  – Tonya Mosley – January 22, 20242:32 PM ET – Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Carmel Wroth adapted it for the web.

What is heartening is now, at this 21st century moment, we are fortunate to be part of a growing, powerful movement to address the need for fair and supportive treatment of women and birthing persons of color by the American healthcare system:

A study by Hodnett (2002) examined pain and women’s satisfaction with the experience of childbirth. Surprisingly, the researcher found that the amount of pain a woman experienced during childbirth factored little into her perception of her overall birth experience. However, in every instance, the quality of the relationship with and support from caregivers was a strong predictor of childbirth satisfaction. – J Perinat Educ. 2006 Winter; 15(1): 11–18.doi: 10.1624/105812406X92949

Needless to say, I no longer feel a sense of ‘bragging rights’ when I think about the forceps dents in my skull.

At Global Foundation for Girls, our team is working everyday to advocate, educate, and fight for women, girls, gender-fluid and birthing persons. We are part of the age-old movement to gain equity for the people who don’t have it, and to change the hearts and minds of the people who feel and think equity is unnecessary. 

Join us in our efforts and help us enact historic change this Women’s History Month. Share your stories and your support with us at Global Foundation for Girls (GFG).